The Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles stand out as Major League Baseball's most heartwarming regular-season team stories of 2012. Written off as irrelevant in spring training and devoid of expectations, they showed impressive staying power to make the playoffs, change perceptions and energize the fan bases in their respective markets.
American League Manager of the Year voters were diligently taking notes.
Baltimore's Buck Showalter and Oakland's Bob Melvin played pivotal roles in their teams' surprising runs, steering their rosters through injuries and rampant skepticism, and maintaining a sense of calm even when the odds were stacked against them. To the people who watched them up close, day after day, their impacts are undeniable.
"I'm obviously biased. But even unbiased, Bobby was phenomenal," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said of Melvin. "We played in the toughest division in baseball this season. We had the lowest payroll, and half the team was rookies. No disrespect, but in spring training all you guys [in the media] predicted we wouldn't just finish with 100 losses, but 110 losses. I think he's done as good a job as anybody else in the last 10 years."
Showalter, similarly, draws praise from Baltimore players who had become weighed down by defeatism and the seeming futility of trying to compete in the formidable AL East. The Orioles went 93-69 after winning 69, 68, 64, 66 and 69 games in the previous five seasons. The Orioles hadn't finished above .500 since 1997 -- the last year they made the playoffs. But Showalter never allowed his players to give in to the perception that they were outmanned, outgunned or outspent.
"He's a contender because he puts [a contender] on the field every night," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said in an email. "'Show' allowed us to police and govern ourselves. He left it in our hands all year. He puts his trust in the players and all he asks in return is, 'Play the game hard,' and that's pretty much it.
"You can talk all about the preparation he does and the coaching staff. But to make things simple, that man just asks you to play the game hard and smart -- not [be] a chicken wit' its head cut off."
The top manager competitions in the two leagues feature decidedly different fields. The three National League finalists -- Washington's Davey Johnson, Cincinnati's Dusty Baker and San Francisco's Bruce Bochy -- all ran teams that began the season with reasonably high to very high expectations. True, Baker had to steer the Reds through the loss of Joey Votto for an extended period, Johnson maintained his sense of calm and control amid the incessant Stephen Strasburg chatter and an array of injuries, and Bochy had to cope with the season-long absence of closer Brian Wilson, Pablo Sandoval's fractured hamate bone, Tim Lincecum's travails and the Melky Cabrera PED debacle. But no one can say their teams came out of nowhere to compete.
That's precisely what happened in the American League. With apologies to Robin Ventura, who guided the Chicago White Sox to second place in his debut and is the third finalist for the AL's top manager award, the race comes down to two men whose teams were considered afterthoughts in their divisions.
Just think back to spring training and the rebuilding project that Melvin was overseeing. The Athletics had traded Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill in the offseason, and Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden both began the season on the disabled list. The major storylines in Oakland's camp were the arrival of Cuban émigré Yoenis Cespedes, who had signed a four-year, $36 million contract as a free agent, and Manny Ramirez's latest comeback attempt.
In late February, Beane flew to Hollywood for the Oscar ceremonies, where "Moneyball" was a best picture finalist. Meanwhile, the real-life A's fielded a roster with a $52.9 million Opening Day payroll -- last among the 30 big league clubs.
"Despite signing Cespedes, Beane's offseason fire sale has left the cupboard bare at the major league level for the A's, a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2006, which is also the last year the team finished over .500," read one typically pessimistic season preview for Oakland, this one from The Sports Network.
The A's were muddling along at 26-35, nine games behind the Rangers in the AL West, when they inexplicably caught fire. They went 68-33 after June 11, and posted a combined 21-17 record against Texas and Los Angeles, the big-payroll, star-laden teams that supposedly embodied the American League's new power shift from East to West.
Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young were particularly adept at overcoming obstacles. The A's lost Bartolo Colon to a positive drug test, Brandon McCarthy to a line drive off the head and Anderson to a late-season oblique injury, but Melvin and Young deftly managed the workloads for a young, inexperienced rotation. Rookies accounted for a whopping 101 of Oakland's 162 starts and won 53 games, most ever by a collection of first-year pitchers.
The esprit de corps in the Oakland clubhouse was evident before the team's final road trip, when 17 players donned matching green-and-gold wrestling singlets as part of a rookie hazing ritual.
"Sometimes a manager can keep the clubhouse in order through fear, but that doesn't last long," Beane said. "We had 25 or 30 guys who were with us for a lot of the season, and my belief is every one of them loved playing for Bob. I thought that was pretty unique. I felt the same way last year when we didn't come in first. I kept saying, 'How has this guy not been managing for the last three years?'"
Melvin found career salvation in Oakland after being fired by Arizona in May 2009. Showalter, meanwhile, made a smooth transition from the ESPN studios to the dugout at Camden Yards midway through the 2010 season. In his first three stops with the Yankees, Rangers and Diamondbacks, Showalter earned a reputation as a diligent, detail-oriented sort who was great at building a sense of discipline and order but whose alleged micromanaging grated on the clubhouse. Eventually, those teams opted for a change and brought in someone else to reap the benefits.
Not this time. Showalter showed a sense of trust in his players that allowed them to thrive regardless of salary or service time. Jones and catcher Matt Wieters, former hot prospects now in their mid-20s, embraced leadership roles with the Orioles. Outfielder Nate McLouth, pressed into service in the leadoff spot after an injury to Nick Markakis, resurrected his career after being released by Pittsburgh. Chris Davis, who never quite cut it in Texas, slugged .501 and hit 33 homers. And rookie Manny Machado made a seamless transition from shortstop to third base after being dropped into the middle of a pennant race at age 20.
The Orioles were discounted as an aberration for much of the season when they kept winning games despite a negative run differential. But Showalter proved masterful in handling his bullpen and injecting his clubhouse with a can-do attitude. Baltimore's signature achievement was its ability to pull out the close ones; the Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games, 25-14 in two-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning contests. They won their last 16 extra-inning games during the regular season.
''That's a tribute to the manager using his players appropriately and effectively, but also creating an atmosphere where they're motivated and hungry to win games," said Dan Duquette, Baltimore's executive vice president of baseball operations.
The A's lost to Justin Verlander in the fifth and deciding game of the American League Division Series, and Baltimore fell to New York in the first round of the playoffs despite holding the Yankees to a .211 team batting average. Showalter's biggest achievement might have been resurrecting the hopes of a city that had become resigned to losing and apathetic about its baseball franchise. That new, reinvigorated mindset was evident during the recent World Series of Poker, when Laurel, Md., native Greg Merson pocketed $8.53 million while wearing an Adam Jones Orioles jersey.
Duquette couldn't help but take notice when he came across the poker tournament while channel surfing.
"I thought, 'Wow this is cool,'" Duquette said. "It's cool to be an Oriole."
Baseball fans in Oakland know the feeling. In the final counting, Buck Showalter and Bob Melvin played major roles in breathing life back into their teams. When the American League's top manager vote is revealed Wednesday evening, they'll learn who gets more credit.